Arrival of first baby doesn't mean wife's marital satisfaction has to take big nose dive

October 23, 2000

The arrival of a couple's first baby is a time of great joy that is frequently followed by a sharp decline in the wife's marital satisfaction. Social scientists have known this for some time, and that this dissatisfaction can propel couples toward divorce.

But marital satisfaction doesn't have to take a nose dive for new parents. University of Washington marital researchers studying first-time parents have uncovered a "prescription" for maintaining and even improving marital satisfaction. Research from the laboratory of UW psychology professor John Gottman published in the Journal of Family Psychology reinforces earlier findings about the importance of building a strong marital bond or friendship.

According to Alyson Fearnley Shapiro, lead author of the new study and UW doctoral student, the three-part prescription for strengthening the marital bond, or the glue that holds a marriage together, is:

In the new study, Shapiro, Gottman and research scientist Sybil Carrère tracked 82 newlywed couples for between four and six years. During that time, 43 couples became parents and 39 remained childless. The researchers were trying to predict changes in marital satisfaction and identify buffers that protect a couple as they make the transition to parenthood based on the couple's early relationship as newlyweds.

The couples were recruited during the first year of their marriage, filled out marriage satisfaction questionnaires and participated in oral history interviews that collected information about their relationship. Marital satisfaction was tracked through annual follow-ups. In addition, marital satisfaction questionnaires were administered to the 43 parent couples after the wife became pregnant and again when the baby was 3 months old.

While the women who became mothers reported higher initial marital satisfaction, they also had significantly sharper rates of declining marital satisfaction than did the wives who remained childless. Among the new parents, 33 percent of the wives reported stable or improved marital satisfaction while 67 percent reported declines. Among the childless couples, 51 percent of wives reported stable or increased marital satisfaction and 49 percent reported a decline.

Increased marital dissatisfaction among new mothers was not always evident in the three months following the birth of a child. Nearly half of the mothers who reported declining satisfaction did not report it until one year after the birth of their child. Four of them didn't report it until two years after the birth of their child.

"What is important about this work is that 33 percent of couples who went through the stressful transition to parenthood found ways to keep their marriages happy and in some cases even make their marriages richer," said Shapiro. "They show that there are ways of keeping a marriage strong, even during this very stressful time for wives who often do most of the work caring for the baby while the husband is off in the provider role."

Shapiro said the key early marital predictors of stable or increased satisfaction for a wife were her husband's expression of fondness towards her, his high awareness of her and the marriage, and her awareness of the husband and their relationship.

"What we see over the transition to parenthood is if the husband is aware of his wife and attentive, it helps them make it through this stressful time," she said. "Similarly, when the wife is aware of her husband and his contribution, she is more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt when she may be preoccupied with the baby."

Early predictors of a wife's declining satisfaction were a husband's expression of negativity toward his wife, a husband's disappointment in the marriage and a description by either partner of their lives as being chaotic.

All of these predictors can be measured early on by using the oral history interview, she said. A husband's negativity shows up in little criticisms and snide remarks about the wife that the researchers believe become more problematic in the transition to parenthood. Early disappointment can erode at the foundation of a marriage and a wife eventually feels less and less supported at a time when she needs support the most, according to Shapiro.

"When it comes to descriptions of chaos, what couples typically say is they are experiencing big life changes with things they feel they have no control over," she said. "They feel helpless. If there is a tendency to see early problems as being out of control, imagine how the couple will respond to the big life changes they will experience with a baby when there is no way of predicting when the infant will cry or wake up in the middle of the night."
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The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and is being followed up by a pilot program and workshop, "Baby Makes Three," being conducted by Shapiro and Gottman at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. The pilot is testing a program designed to strengthen a couple's marriage, promote the father's involvement in the family and teach parents basics about human development of babies so they know what to expect next from their growing infant. The UW researchers also are seeking funding to do a full-scale study of the "Baby Makes Three" program.

For more information, contact: Sybil Carrère at 206-543-2968 or carrere@u.washngton.edu

University of Washington

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